Miami Votes on a New Way To Fight City Hall: Close It

Today's referendum to end city government is not likely to pass, but it highlights deep divisions.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A referendum on the ballot in Miami today is putting a new twist on that old political phrase, "Throw the bums out!"

The ballot question asks the city's 133,000 registered voters to decide whether the entire city government - from mayor to dog catcher - should get the boot so that Miami would be governed instead by the Metro-Dade County Commission.

The proposal is not expected to pass, but the fact that the vote is taking place at all indicates the severity of the problems facing Miami.

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The city of 350,000 is viewed by many as a surrogate capital of Latin America, a kind of financial, commercial, and intellectual entrept for the hemisphere. But in contrast to the flashy image of royal palms and sunshine glinting off glass-and-steel skyscrapers, a great many of the city's residents live in abject poverty. The US Census lists Miami as the fourth-poorest city in the nation, after Laredo, Texas; Detroit; and New Orleans.

"When you drive into the city of Miami, what you see is enormous wealth in the downtown area, but you can be completely oblivious to the fact that a stone's throw away in any direction it lands is as poor an urban area as you are going to find in the United States," says Christopher Warren, a political scientist at Florida International University here.

The city's image wasn't helped when an FBI corruption probe last year snared a city commissioner, the city manager, the city finance chief, and a local lobbyist in various alleged kickback and bribery schemes. That in turn led to revelations that the city budget was a work of fiction with $68 million in unrecorded debts that pushed Miami to the brink of bankruptcy and forced the supervision of a state finance commission.

Disgusted by corruption, inefficiency, incompetence, and red tape, a group of angry residents collected 20,236 signatures in a petition drive last year to force today's referendum.

The residents, mostly from affluent neighborhoods such as Coconut Grove, want to change to county government in the hope that it brings lower tax rates and better services. Some in Coconut Grove eventually want to set up their own municipality, with police, fire, and sanitation departments that they feel can be run more efficiently on a smaller scale.

But Miami politicians and employees aren't about to look for new jobs. They are rallying the Cuban-American community, the city's largest voting bloc, into opposing the proposal by emphasizing the city government's importance as a stronghold of Cuban-American political power. And they are flooding potential voters with dire predictions that massive special taxes will face citizens under a Metro-Dade government.

As if to leave no stone unturned in their quest to avoid extinction, the five-member Miami City Commission - all opponents of abolishing the city government - used their power to craft one of the most strangely worded questions ever to appear on a ballot here. "Shall the city of Miami retain its existence as a municipality and not be abolished...?" the ballot asks.

Commissioners say they wanted voters to be able to vote "yes" to save the city's government.

Referendum proponents took the commissioners to court, arguing that the politicians illegally tampered with the ballot wording to confuse voters. State judges ruled the awkward wording was not a big enough infraction to postpone the vote and amend the ballot.

Political analysts say there is more at stake in Thursday's vote than just the future of Miami's government. They warn that the trend of wealthy neighborhoods seeking to form their own government enclaves threatens to leave the poorest sections of the county without any chance of improvement or recovery. They say the efforts could result in a patchwork quilt of well-to-do municipalities interspersed by huge swaths of urban blight abandoned by rich taxpayers.

"What you are seeing is a subtle tendency for the rich to isolate themselves and leave the poor to fend for themselves," says Lance DeHaven-Smith, director of the Ruben Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Mr. DeHaven-Smith and others say the trend is only the most recent example of a legacy of racism in the South that has allowed wealthy communities to opt out of involvement in low-income urban areas. "What goes on in the formation and expansion of cities is very much affected by race and class considerations. People don't talk about it, but that is what it boils down to," he says.

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